ziaclara

Fictional musings through a personal history

Nyquil & Nixon

26 September 1968

Ciao cara,

Mi dispiace!  It has taken me so long to finally find the time to sit down and write again. I have been quite exhausted, as has your Nonna.  I think we have an end of summer cold,  It just drags out.  If I drink one more Italian herbal concoction if basil and garlic that your grandmother makes for us, I will throw up.  On top of that, my breath stinks! I am going to break down and buy this new medicine, Nyquil, that your mother insists will help, even though she said it will “knock me out.”  I will let you know if it works.

The weather has turned very cool – I suppose it is really autumn. I have been tidying up the house, inside and out, getting ready to hunker down for the winter.  We had a large coal delivery in case the weather turns bad quickly.  Also, your little sister came over last weekend to help put plastic on some of our windows so we can keep in the heat on some of the back rooms.  We had a good time together.  Despite her political leanings, with which I disagree, she has a sarcastic wit; she must have inherited this from our side of the family.  It skipped you and Elena! We both made fun of the fact that Nixon was on “Laugh-In.”  Good heavens!  What was that man thinking?

Well, my dear, I am going to bed early, so buona notte!

Your zia

art work Autumn artwork

Sun and more sun

11 August 1968

Ciao cara,

A typical summer day here in the city. Mid-80’s and warm with almost no breeze, unfortunately.  Sun. Sun. Sun.  I am feeling incredibly lazy.  Nonna is baking, if you can believe it!  With the oven turned on, the house is so hot. I cannot stand to stay in the kitchen to talk with her; even my appartamento is too stifling.  So, I am sitting outside on my upstairs porch, and under my umbrella with a cool glass of iced-tea, the newspaper, and some ciambelli.

Earlier this morning, I met your mother and father at Mass, and afterwards walked back to your home to eat.  She and your father are so excited about the “Prague Spring,” as the newspapers are calling it.  When they go to the Sokol Hall, other Slovak families are already planning group trips.  Regardless of this large community here, it would be great if your dad’s family could reconnect with the Slovak side overseas.  It is all so hard to imagine, since our Italian-American family is so close and now, with our visiting Lunghezza and Loretello, the Italian famiglia as well.  Who knows, maybe Elena will be taking a trip to Czechoslovakia, too, in the near future.  She is the one in your family with the travel bug

I feel the pen getting heavy along with my eyes, so I am signing off, dear one.

Your zia

girls 001Unfortunately, as you know, history took a sad turn for Czechoslovakia and freedom. My father never saw his “rodina” in Europe again. I cannot help but be reminded of this time in history when so many other countries are trying to keep the spirit of their “Springs” alive.

the end of spring

1 June 1968

Ciao bella,

This morning is beautiful as the temperature is perfect….mid-60’s.  I love it!  I will spend the day cooking with all the windows and doors open.  I am sitting outside in our small garden with my morning caffé – your nonna is at morning mass – and I, scribbling this short note to you.  You should see your Nonno Augusto’s peach trees…they are flowering, rather late, but looking like a bride’s bouquet.  He loved these trees.  The coal mines left their scars on him, and caring for these were healing.

This evening all five of the “girls” are getting together for a sisters’ dinner.  I am hoping to set up the larger table in the back yard, as it will not get above 70°.  My part of the meal is simple – pollo con albicocco, but it is setting the tavolo that is the best part.  I will put a plate aside for Nonna and she will watch her evening T.V. programs  – I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched!  Personally, I cannot stand these, but it brings her a laugh or two.

My goal is to keep your Zia Mel from arguing politics this evening!  Kennedy will surely win.  I think he is a decent man, even though I never quite trusted his brother.  He is a Catholic and a Democrat. That clinches it for me.

Your zia

ingredients
This very evening, Saturday, June 1st, I am making a dinner for my “sisters” too.  These are dear friends who I have known through all my years since moving to our neighborhood.  We will be having the very dinner zia mentions above.  I am following the recipe from The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman.  It is cooking while I write this.

family meals

6 April 1968
Holy Thursday

Ciao bella,

Today the weather is sunny and truly spring-like with our temperatures reaching 60 degrees.  We could not ask for more, é vero?  It reminds me of the best of Italia at the farm.  Anyway, I am spending my afternoon baking and cooking for Holy Week. These should last through the week and I am planning to share dinners with your family.  Today, it is ravioli di pesce which we will all have tomorrow evening after Stations.  And of course I will try my hand with the fava beans.  Rosa taught me to make this, but it is the first time on my own.  It is delicious.  A purée that is incredibly simple to make, but time-consuming to prepare!  Nona can help me shell the beans – which she does not know yet – I will sit her outside in this brilliant sun for this tedious task, with a small espresso, of course.

Both your parents are working this week, and your mother is on the night-shift, so this will help tremendously.  She spends her waking hours in that dank basement, sewing like crazy for your two sisters – beautiful dresses and matching lined, full-length coats. I just wish she would do something for herself!

I know this is a very solemn week for you, and my heart is with you, as always.  We will see you soon, dear one.

Your zia

A Palm Sunday outfit!

A Palm Sunday outfit!

My zia is correct in that my mother sewed us endless outfits throughout the year, but especially for Easter. She was an exceptional seamstress, and like most children, we took her devotion to us for granted. I regret to this day that I never learned to sew. This is a dress NOT made by my mother, nor is the hat! Years later, my sisters and I still have a good laugh over that ridiculous hat! It is hard to believe that we ever fought over who was to wear it!

You can find these delicious recipes mentioned by my zia, in Valentina’s Italian Family Feast.

and then there was Czechoslovakia…

10 March 1968

Ciao bella,

Mi dispiace! I have not written to you for so, so long. There is just too much happening in this country, with work, and with tua Nonna…except for the few postcards from the City, I have been a poor correspondent.

First of all, everyone is fine. The one I am beginning to have concern about is your little sister…she is not so little –fourteen years old. She is being influenced by the anti-war movement. Actually I agree with her politically, but it is the other ways – hair, clothes, and music! Your mother takes this all in good stride. She sits with her and listens to the new LPs, and will even sing some of those awful lyrics. God bless your mother! I would not have patience. I am glad you all went to Catholic schools. It will stand by you in times like this…I hope!

Seeing the images on TV of Vietnam, the protests here, and the bleak outlook for our country makes me wish more than ever that I was back in my Italia. If only your Nonna was strong enough to travel, I would snatch her up and put us on a plane tomorrow. It breaks my heart that she will never see her birthplace again. Of course, she would never leave your Nonno. Someone in the family drives her to the cemetery every other day. She brings a small folding chair…the kind that is a cane, but opens up so one can sit. She chatters away in Italian to him, and then clutches her rosary and prays the Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Her small voice fills the air around his grave, and it is almost as if she is praying for all those souls…this solitary, old woman dressed in black, so reverent, so sincere. Breaks my heart.

So, I sit in the car and wait, and read my books or magazines…and think about my own life. But enough maudlin writing for one day! We will see you at Easter to enjoy Mass and then a big Italian dinner. An anticipated joy!

Your zia

parents81 001

While my zia fretted about the U.S., my father’s side of our family was concerned about events unfolding in Czechoslovakia, my Baba’s homeland. For years my family sent packages with basic clothing and toiletries; little would reach their hands, as these packages were opened and items stolen. We had hoped that with the Prague Spring democracy would re-establish itself, and travel permitted. But, no country came to their aid, and the Communist regime crushed any of these hopes. It was the last year we had contact from our Slovak relatives.

keeping warm

10 January 1968

Ciao bella,

Settled in for a long, cold night as the temperature is dropping rapidly. It is predicted that it will be below 5 ͦF with icy snow! Our new gas furnace is wonderful, but this is an old house and we have to keep our tenant in mind as we control the heat. I may bake biscotti later. It will heat up the kitchen, and your nonna and I can have an espresso together. She is doing remarkably well. Of course we argued and argued, as I insisted she put on Nonno’s thermal undershirt. It is quite big for her, but at least it is warm. We both laughed until we had tears streaming down our faces! You should have heard the names she called me…in Italian, naturally.

Seeing you over the Christmas holiday was a blessing for her and me! Who knows if and when you will see her again, dear one? She would have loved to go back to her Roma again. I feel badly that I cannot do this for her, but I know that it is too difficult a trip. At least she feels good that all the family is re-connected again. The packages from Rosa and Giulia meant a lot. It was so very thoughtful of them to send your gifts directly to the convent. I hope everyone there enjoyed them as there is nothing like Italian chocolate! Now I am hungry!
Ciao bella,

Your zia

I clearly remember coal being delivered into our “coal cellar” at the window when I was young. It was always a big event and caused a lot of bustle. I loved the sound it made sliding down the chute so fast and so furiously. I would sneak downstairs later in the evening and slowly open the grooved wooden door to bear witness. When we finally replaced the coal furnace with gas, it felt like magic had left that space.

Advent

10 December 1967

Ciao bella,

Your Nonna and I are back home this morning having been to an early Mass. I have to tell you that I really do not like our parish or the church itself. It is cold and sterile. The colors are washed out blue and beige; the chandeliers, brass and simple; the pews without any carvings whatsoever. How would anyone even think to find God here, I just don’t know. What a difference from our chiesa in Lunghezza where it was filled with beautifully painted statues and embroidered altar cloths. And our priests here are so cold, too! None of the warmth emanates from them, either. It is so depressing. I would rather stay home, but your Nonna would be quite upset with me. Oh, how I miss my Roma!

Today I will finally begin to make this house festive. Your little sister is coming over this afternoon to help. It is good to have that young energy in the house because it is hard – this first Natale without tuo Nonno, but life must go on. I am hoping to start baking panetonne, just to get into the mood. This, along with my White Christmas soundtrack should do it! I will send you some to share with everyone else.

Your zia

Christmas decorations

Decorating the fireplace mantle was so much fun for us as children, and continues to be this for my sisters.

Our whole family, including my zia, waited patiently, every year, for the movie White Christmas to appear on our three channel TV schedule. Back then before VHS, these movies would only come once a year, and if you missed it you had to wait a year to see it again!

rooftop moment

20 November 1967

Ciao bella,

The brisk autumn winds blow relentlessly at home. I can see the large dried maple leaves swirling along the street gutters, and the pine tree tops swaying at the end of our neighbor’s yard. I am sitting outside on our third-story rooftop porch writing these words, bundled up in your nonna’s crocheted woolen blanket – so beautiful.

It is a relief to be home with your Nonna, and in my little yellow room since my stay in the city with the Fine family turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated. One child after another came down with some sort of virus, so it was non-stop nursing for almost two weeks.Can you can imagine this with five of them? Then, it was deciding what was going to be packed for their holiday. We made endless lists; the wealthy have too much stuff!

More importantly, I did meet T for dinner. He broke his news to me – in person – that he is engaged to a widow. I knew this would happen eventually. He is a dear, dear man. Had our lives met at some other time and place, I could have been very happy with him. In the end, one must learn to live with the consequences and vows made. Youth is no excuse. We parted friends, which I am sure will fade over time – as it should.

So, for the Thanksgiving holidays I am home with the people I love – – except for you, dear heart and who love me! One is grateful for this often overlooked part of life – those who we live with day in and day out. Va bene.

Your zia

photo of blanket
While this is not the handmade blanket my zia refers to here, it is one of two handmade blankets made by my husband’s “Bonne Mama” which we are fortunate to have inherited.

spread out

5 November 1967

Ciao bella,

The temperature dropped last night and it is cold, cold, cold – in the 40’s! I miss the wood stove in Lunghezza! Somehow the radiators are just not the same. Of course, I do not miss the damp bedroom and bathroom…at least now I have a cozy, yellow room where I can spread out my correspondence, newspapers, magazines all over the bedspread of pristine white chenille, listen to opera on my new stereo, and drink my caffé without worry of frozen fingers. I am listening to Mignon right now, although it is not my favorite. Today is such a day!

Your mother, dad, and little sister walked up to the house and then, the four of us walked to church for Mass. Nonna had gone to one at 6 a.m. She wakes so early now without your Nonno. When we got back she had made spaghetti with tuna sauce so we could share our lunch. I made the mistake of having a glass of wine and fell asleep immediately after everyone went home.

I plan to go to the city next week to help out with Mrs. Fine’s’ party and then get them packed and ready before the Thanksgiving holidays. They will be leaving town for the long holiday weekend for Massachusetts – alot of packing. I will return here and spend it with la familgia. I am so sorry that you will not make it. T and I promised one another that we would have one evening out for a dinner while I am in the City. We shall see. I am too old for all this emotional drama.

By the way, the upstairs apartment is rented to a nice young couple. So far, so good. They are just starting out their lives together. It is very touching.

Your zia<

photo of espresso cup and saucer

I rescued this commonplace memento – espresso cup and saucer – from an American junk shop. It is stamped on the bottom “Apulum Fine Porclaine”…how could I resist? Someday I hope to visit the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze.

a pot-pie

2 November 1967

Ciao bella,

This Thursday night I am up late. Your Nonna is finally asleep. We had a full day at Mass for All Soul’s Day, then the cemetery and, finally dinner with your family and Zia Amelia. It is good to keep her busy, and so your mother and I are desperately trying to think of things we need her to do. Right now she is making a dress for your little sister – who is not so little but a young woman.

While she sleeps I am making us a quick and easy dinner we can just pop into the oven tomorrow to warm up. I will drive her to the mountains to visit your Zia Adele and family; one of the boys will bring her home again. I know that you own virtually nothing, but it is a stretch for us to make ends meet on our fixed income. I am putting together a tuna pot-pie with whatever we have in the house since tomorrow is Friday.

I postponed going to the city as Mrs. Fine came down with a nasty cold and the party is postponed. That family is always sick. They need to open their windows! This also gives me time to fret longer about what to say to T. Perhaps I will just call him while I am home alone. Who knows? In the meantime, we are putting a notice in the local paper to rent the apartment. Wish us luck!

Your zia


 

Growing up in a Catholic household during the 1950’s and 1960’s when you not only fasted before Communion, but were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays, it was a challenge to come up with meatless dishes. This was long before there were vegetarian cookbooks and the culture that followed with the publication of Laurel’s Kitchen, a first in its field. My mother’s favorite cookbook was not Italian, but a Crisco one. When I was in my 20’s, she gave me this one as a gift which I still have and use, from time to time.


Inside are sautéed mushrooms and onions, 1 can of a cream soup, pimento, milk, flour, tuna and topped with a sharp cheddar cheese & crumbly crust. A typical 1960’s meal.


A homemade pie crust is what makes this a “homey” meal. Here, I added caraway seeds at the cookbook editor’s suggestions. My Nonna always put a little “dough ball” into the oven to appease the spirits. I still do too!

the back porch

27 October 1967

Ciao Bella,

What a difference a week makes! Your father and Uncle Edilo came over this past week to sand, patch, and paint my room downstairs. This weekend I will move my things back into it and place everything just so. I painted it my favorite color, a deep yellow. This also matches my favorite lamps that your Aunt Amelia gave me, which are also yellow. Unfortunately, my double sofa bed takes up most of the room, but I can manage my stereo and tables, so it is just fine. Your nonna feels much better with someone on the floor with her, and it is fortunate we get along well. She is making me talk in Italian all the time, so this is good, too.

She and I have cleaned out nonno’s closet. He did not own much, to be honest – one good suit and work clothes from the mill. What we cannot bring ourselves to touch is his little napping place on the back porch. For now, we will let it be. Nonna has made it into a small shrine with pictures, flowers, and holy cards. I don’t blame her. One must cope with one’s own grief in any way possible. Fifty plus years of marriage is a long time, and a loss I cannot even imagine.

I will be going back to the city fairly soon for a week or so to help Mrs. Fine with a party, and the kids. Your mother and aunts will be in and out here, so I leave with a lighter step. I did hear from T and he insists that I call him when I get into town this time. Somehow Nonno’s death has put a lot of my anxiety to rest. One begins to realize that time is short, at my age.

portrait photo

the subdued week

20 October 1967

Ciao bella,

We are starting to breathe again, your nonna and I. The week has been filled with frenetic activities and mingling with relatives who I would rather not mingle, but now it has subsided down to stillness. At last. I am sorry that you could not be spared from your duties to come home for his funeral, but dear one, I hold no bad feelings, no grudge or resentment. Life is too short and those we love are too valuable. Sometimes one cannot change what is written for us. It is much better to accept. Your mother told me how upset you were and still are. Let it go, cara.

All of a sudden I see so much death around me. A young marine, a Corporal, from our town was killed in South Vietnam today. His obituary reads that he was twenty-one years old and only there two years. This pains me tremendously, even though I have no children of my own. It is wrong to kill, and for the young to die so far away, so alone from all who love them despite any justification – patriotic or otherwise – is heartbreaking. I pray and pray, but for what? To who? I don’t know how you keep your faith during these days. Someday we will sit down – zia to niece – and have a good talk.

Your mother is coming by this evening and we are planning my move back to the first floor from the upstairs apartment. I know I can look forward to having a few good laughs with her regardless of the gloom embracing me now. Until next time, feel good about your nonno, and say your prayers for him.

Your zia

altered violet

 

“Violets, white cotton, dried and crumpled

lay lifeless in a nook, a dark wooden drawer.”

not good

9 October 1967

Ciao bella,

I know that your mother called you last night to give you the news about nonno. He is not well, and although it is not surprising given how hard his life has been and his age, it is still difficile. Your nonna cries when he sleeps. All she does when he is awake is to cook and bake his favorite foods in the hope that his appetite will return. It will not. He is a hard man. Not affectionate. Not emotional. But after we returned from the doctor’s office, as I helped him from the car, he stopped, looked at me straight in the eyes, and without emotion or any change in his voice, said, “My Clara, you have been a good daughter.” I told your mother that I was so stunned, I could not respond.

In the meantime, we say our novenas every evening, and tua nonna and I eat like there is no tomorrow… if I see another sardine, I will gag! Penne and sardines, day and night, as it is one of his favorites. Of course, the sardines are CANNED, not fresh. Ack! I wish I could send it down to you and all your hungry students – at least the pasta. It is a sin to have so much and not share it.

I made a hair appointment for your nonna just to get her out of the house. Despite the fact that she will never let go of her long, gray braid, she needs it trimmed.

Call here when you can. Your nonno would want to talk with you if he can, as he loves his grandchildren, especially his three granddaughters!

Your zia

holycard2

 

My grandfather died a few days later on October 13th.  As a child it was the first death of someone I loved.  And yes, he was a hard, hard man to know; yet, there are moments I can recall clearly where he was affectionate with me – a big embrace, or my arms around his neck to kiss his unshaved cheek.  He was the only grandfather I knew. T’amo mio nonno.

going home

5 October 1967

Ciao bella,

Well, I am back home again  – in my small town with mia famiglia. It feels good to be rooted. While I love the “other” family I have, I miss my own life living at my own pace. They are very sweet though. Mr. Fine brought me one of his very exclusive handbags as a little “thank you.” Of course it was not necessary, as they pay me plenty, but I was touched nonetheless. It is hard to believe that he emigrated here, and he has made his fortune designing these high-end accessories. I could never afford one myself. That is certain!

This weekend, your mother and I took a day trip to shop at Hess’s in Pennsylvania and we got all dressed up (I used my new purse) with hats, heels, and gloves. I treated her to lunch at the Patio Restaurant where we both had the strawberry pie! It was a lovely day. The models walk around the tables while you eat. The girls are just beautiful and so are the clothes. We each bought a winter hat – modestly priced, of course, but very classic. When we got home, your father had started making his spaghetti sauce and meatballs for Sunday dinner. I stole a quite few to take home for myself and tuoi Nonni>…he gets so annoyed with me, but he is too sweet to say anything. I know he makes extra just for me anyway.

The rest of this week I will be cleaning and taking your nonno for his doctor visit. He is not feeling so well, and I finally talked him into going. You know, they do not trust doctors!

Affettuoso abbraicio,

Your zia

purse

 

This is one of the purses made by the authentic handbag company my aunt speaks of in this post. Found on Etsy, it is at least 40 years old, navy blue wool with inside lined pockets, and a zipper that still works; these beautiful handles are similar to bakelite. These were available for sale only in the finest department stores which is now almost an bygone era!

the record store

30 September 1967

Ciao bella,

This is my last weekend with the Fines since Mr. F is returning from his business trip. It is okay with me. I am worried about your >nonni. Your mother called last night and told me that nonno was not feeling well. You know how he loves these American sweets! nonna tries to hide them, but he just walks down to the corner store and buys more. It is driving her crazy. So it is better I am there to make sure he is eating what he should be eating. At least I can argue with him, which your nonna is reluctant to do.

At least the weather has cooled off which lets me take the kids outside. Today I promised I would take them shopping since the girls have been dying to go to the record store. Apparently they love a rock and roll group, The Seeds. I have heard of the Beatles, but not this one. I just hope I can stand it because they really turn up the volume, and despite how big this apartment is, you can hear almost everything.

I am sorry I did not get to see you while I was here, dear one, but I will make more of an effort with my next trip. I did not contact T either. It took me a year in Italy to regain my center. I am afraid to lose it again.

Your zia

seeds
Their famous song, if you recall, is “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and we have the original album from 1966!